THEY are eight points clear of third place with 13 games to play, but Chris Hughton says promotion has never even been mentioned at Newcastle United’s training ground.
The Magpies host Barnsley this afternoon clear favourites to win this season’s Championship and secure promotion to the Premier League. Even so, their manager claims the topic has never come up.
“It is down to the personalities in the team,” he explained. “Nobody really wants to get carried away. There’s a confidence in the group – there’s no doubt about that – but I haven’t overheard one conversation where people are talking about promotion and being in the Premier League next season.”
Hughton concedes on pure football his side is not the best in the league – that tag, he says, belongs to West Bromwich Albion – but their combination of flair and mental toughness has made them the most successful.
“What we’ve had this season to keep us where we are is a bit of everything,” he reflected. “There’s a fair bit of toughness in the team – we’re a side capable of grinding out a result – but also a decent amount of flair. There’s a lot of maturity in the team and we are able to win games in different ways. If we have to battle it out and produce a real dogged performance to get a result, we can do that.”
Many were expecting Newcastle to fail the test of character relegation provided to players used to plying their trade in the top flight. The doom-mongers were looking astute when United lost 6-1 at Leyton Orient in pre-season, and Hughton admits he was not sure at that stage if they would be proved right.
“The truth is that, at the start of the season, I didn’t really know what would happen,” Hughton admitted. “There were blips in pre-season, but I was never overly-concerned. I didn’t really know what would happen in the Championship, and the only way to find out was to play the first two or three games and see. From a fairly early stage, it became apparent we had enough character and quality to have a real good go.”
Those attributes have been most obvious at St James’ Park, where the Magpies are unbeaten this season in front of crowds larger than those at all but four top-flight stadia.
“There’s no doubt the stadium and the support we get has been a factor.” said Hughton. “Most teams have better home records than away records, but I think our players have a real desire to want to win at home. We haven’t always played so well at home, but we’ve tended to find a way to get a result. We’ve always had a good fighting spirit. If you look at the away games, and I even think you can include Derby in this (despite losing 3-0), I can’t think of too many where we haven’t been in the game. We’ve always looked capable of getting something. Whether we would have deserved it or not is another matter, but we always look like we can nick something.
“It’s just a fact that when you’re at home, you tend to get a bit more of the rub of the green. You’re used to the stadium and have the home support behind you. The longer the game goes at St James’, the more we feel if anyone’s going to win, it’s going to be us. Teams do raise their game (against Newcastle) because we are a big scalp in this division. But in this league, we’ve been a strong team this season. And generally, if you’re a strong team, you’re going to have a strong home record.”
José Enríque, Peter Løvenkrands and Nicky Butt are all fit for what should be Steve Harper’s 50th consecutive league appearance.
Both teams will wear black armbands today in honour of Charlie Crowe, a member of Newcastle’s 1951 FA Cup final team, and former Macclesfield manager Keith Alexander, who died this week. There will also be a minute’s applause for the pair before kick-off.